They roam the mountains of northern Portugal freely, as they have done for a few thousand years at least. I had heard about these wild horses, and when we traveled to this emerald part of the country, I was hoping to get lucky and have a glimpse of them. The gods must have been listening because we managed several sightings of these beautiful creatures in the space of an afternoon. We saw an entire group which included a mare and her very playful foal, amidst the lush vegetation of a valley surrounded by tall hills rising in the distance. The others we saw were grazing not too far from the road.
These horses are called Garrano, meaning “small horse”, and are today found in the Peneda-Gerês National Park in the north of Portugal, on the border with Spain. The Garrano is an ancient race of horses that has been in the Iberian peninsula since the Paleolithic period (earlier than 12,000 B.C.). Rock and cave engravings found in the Peninsula (such as Altamira) depict a horse identical to the Garranos that can be seen today. This means that the breed has remained largely unchanged over this time span. Genetic evidence shows its direct lineage from the Celtic pony. An infusion of Arabian blood can be traced to the 20th century.
These sturdy creatures were domesticated over several millennia. According to archeological findings, these horses figured in important events in Portugal’s history — it was atop one that a local chief named Viriato fought the Roman invaders. It was also a Garrano that the country’s founder, D. Afonso Henriques, rode. In more recent periods, these horses were used by the Portuguese army. Local people used them in farm work, and to carry wood from the forests. It was an ideal means of transport in the narrow hillpaths. During the Second World War, they carried miners to remote mines.
As the importance of these horses in rural life diminished with the arrival of farm machines, breeders grew less interested in rearing them and horses were released back into the forests. The Garrano race almost disappeared in the early 20th century when the government started to pursue an aggressive forestry program. In 1945, in a bid to save the race, government released 21 horses in the mountain range in order to create a reserve of indigenous horses in the wild. The law prohibits the capture of the wild Garranos. Today, what we mostly see roaming the hills are semi-wild as they are owned by private individuals. These horses are left to roam freely for a few years before being captured (and, perhaps, sold). These semi-wild horses can only be captured every 2 years.
In 1994, the Garrano was named by the European Union as a “threatened species.” On the same year, a national registry of the Garranos was undertaken. The registry identified its characteristics and measured how large the area of dispersion of the species was. There are estimated to be around 2,000 Garranos currently dispersed in the provinces of Minho and Trás-os-Montes.
When visiting Peneda-Gerês, one needs no maps to locate the most worthwhile views or to find where the Garranos are. Every view is postcard perfect. Hiking is the best way to enjoy this breathtaking park, but if you must drive, drive slowly, and keep your eyes wide open. There may be Garranos grazing close by, and you would not want to miss them.